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Schools must strive to develop systems that serve the needs of all students.

Join us for a conference day highlighting Holistic Special Education.

Wednesday, May 22, Antioch University New England, Keene, NH

Featuring keynote speaker Kim John Payne, Director of the Center for Social Sustainability.

Followed by workshops and a panel discussion with leaders and practitioners in the field.

Topics will include:

  • the changing landscape of special education
  • what we know–mining our cognitive capital
  • benefits and challenges of collaborative models
  • transformative teaching and leading–from ablesim to inclusion
  • creating holistic and healthy classrooms–holding space for diversity

See the complete schedule here.

To Register: visit our website at: or call Peg Smeltz: 603.283.2301


In the USA independent schools are leading the way integrating sustainability into the infrastructure of their organizations, as evidenced by this recent job posting by St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH for an Environmental Steward. In addition to fostering environmentally-responsible actions the position includes making “… connections between environmental stewardship efforts and the broader ethical and spiritual motivations driving those efforts… and provide support for teachers seeking to introduce sustainability topics into classrooms.” It is encouraging that the St. Paul School acknowledge the link between environment, economics and equity in the job description and set the vision for integrating sustainability into the curriculum.

Public schools are starting to embrace sustainability, too. City school districts such as Cambridge, MA, and Denver, CO have their own Departments of Sustainability. Typically, these initiatives emphasize green practices such as recycling and energy reduction. But there is evidence that sustainability as an integrating concept is on the curriculum radar, too.

San Francisco Unified School District has created an administrative position for… Ecoliteracy Content Specialist! You can check out their sfusd-ecoliteracyinspiring work at Greening the Next Generation.

Ecoliteracy Content Specialist, Sarah Delaney, works closely with the Sustainability Director for the district and coordinates with many sustainability-related organizations in the Bay area. Sarah coordinates teacher professional development opportunities from Education Outside’s Cooking the Common Core to organizing the 1st Annual San Francisco Ecoliteracy for All Educator’s Conference.

The Ecoliteracy Content Specialist position is currently grant funded but may (hopefully) become part of the annual district budget and could become a model for other public school districts to foster sustainability as an integrating concept across facilities, curricula, and district policies.

It’s not easy making the transition from California springtime to New England mud season. I recently traveled from Los Angeles to Napa, visiting schools, meeting with teachers, and talking up Educating for Sustainability (EFS). I am pleased to report that EFS is alive and well in many California locales.

The Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles integrates sustainability into every facet of their facility and curriculum they can manage, including repurposing a concrete patio into a green  space and using the detritus to build an outdoor amphitheater.ECHS

Place-based learning is at the core of a middle school project in Santa Cruz where students designed and installed mosaics depicting local flora and fauna on a bridge over the local watershed and at Washington Elementary in Santa Barbara where students’ ceramic tiles create a backdrop for the school garden.


Fifth and sixth graders at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport work in teams to prepare locally making_lasagnesourced food for the school’s daily lunch program.

SFUSD gardenSchool gardens are ubiquitous in California. From the Open Alternative School in Santa Barbara to the urban green spaces in San Francisco, schools are integrating gardens into the curriculum.  With the help of organizations like Education Outside a first grade class pulls up garden plants to learn about drawing science diagrams, third graders harvest kale to crisp and snack on, and afterschool programs explore life cycles by tending native plantings.

OAS gardenSystemic change is evident through the work of organizations like the Center for Ecoliteracy and the commitment of the San Francisco Unified School District to Greening the Next Generation and creating an administrative position for… Ecoliteracy Content Specialist!

Check out these innovative EFS schools and organizations through the links at the top of this blog page.

by Donna Mellen

A few weeks ago, I attended a teach-in on climate change sponsored by Pioneer Valley (Massachusetts) Climate Action. The speakers were professors – three scientists, a sociologist, and a peace and world security studies professor – from five colleges in the area.  The picture that they presented was bleak.

Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources  (Metropolitan Books, 2012), spoke about the rapid depletion of natural resources and said that he fears battles for survival around the planet as humans fight for what remains. As Klare spoke, a sense of dread moved through my body. The picture that he painted was not new to me, but, as I let it in, I felt the horror and fear that are natural responses to such a possible future – and, in fact, to much that is going on in the present.

As an educator in the Antioch MBA in Sustainability program, I take in information about planetary crises on a regular basis. How do I hold such information and continue to teach with a sense of hope and enthusiasm about creating a sustainable human presence on the planet?  To do so, I believe that I must come to grips with how I personally deal with fear, hope, and possibility as a human being on planet Earth in the early twenty-first century.  If I am unable to acknowledge – to myself and others – my emotional reactions to the world I find myself in, if I am unable to develop personal resilience in light of our global challenges, then I am unlikely to be helpful to others who struggle with their own fears and hopes about all that we face.

Acknowledging Pain and Other Emotions

In developing my response to our situation, it’s been important to acknowledge to myself and to talk with others about the feelings that my emerging awareness has generated.  It seems to me that it would be helpful for sustainability educators and practitioners to have such conversations with one another.

One of the challenges in initiating such conversations is that, in the United States, our dominant culture does not well support the expression and acknowledgment of emotion. Crying is called “breaking down.”  Anger often generates a fight, freeze, or flee response from others.  We may avoid people who are grieving.  We fear fear.  And we sometimes disparage hope and enthusiasm.  An educational paradigm that has focused on our intellects to the relative neglect of our physical, emotional, artistic, social, ecological, and spiritual selves has, in general, left us – as a culture – inadequately equipped to respond in helpful ways to deep emotional experience.

I was encouraged when I came across the work of Joanna Macy,a long-time ecophilosopher and activist.  A central principle of her work is that “pain for the world, a phrase that covers a range of feelings, including outrage, alarm, grief, guilt, dread, and despair, is a normal, healthy response to a world in trauma” (Macy & Johnstone, Active Hope, p. 67).  When we experience and share our emotions skillfully, “[r]ather than feeling afraid of our pain for the world, we learn to feel strengthened by it” (p. 66).

Developing a Helpful Conceptual Framework

To acknowledge and yet not get stuck in my pain and fear, I find it useful to have a working conceptual model that enables me to make some sense of the turbulence and uncertainty we face.  Joanna Macy’s and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (New World Library, 2012) provides such a framework. These authors propose that we are in a period of historic change that requires rethinking the fundamental assumptions that guide the organization of human life on earth.

Macy and Johnstone suggest that there are three major stories that shape peoples’ views of our current situation.  Business as Usual assumes that our current economic and societal paradigm will continue to work. People who live in this story may argue about how best to proceed to address our problems, but they don’t question the fundamental assumptions of the current paradigm.  In the second story, the Great Unraveling (a term borrowed from David Korten), economic decline, resource depletion, climate change, mass extinction of species, and social division and war will result in worldwide catastrophe and misery. The third story, the Great Turning describes “the essential adventure of our time.  It involves the transition from a doomed economy of industrial growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world.”  They assert that, “This transition is already well under way” (p. 26).

As partial evidence for the Great Turning, they cite Paul Hawken’s contention that we are in the midst of “the largest social movement in history” (Blessed Unrest, Penguin, 2007).  Hawken states, “…I now believe that there are over one – and maybe even two – million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice” (p. 2).  The story of this huge social shift is not told in the mainstream media, which focus on discrete events.  According to Macy and Johnstone,  “We might need to train ourselves to see the larger pattern and recognize how the story of the Great Turning is happening in our time. Once seen, it becomes easier to recognize” (p. 27).

This framework enables me to consciously choose my stance within our global context.  If we are in the midst of an historic global shift, no wonder our societal institutions – from the economy to health care to education to government – are struggling.  No wonder we hear clashing perspectives on the nature of reality and what we need to do to create a better society.  Our natural and human systems are under stress and in a process of realignment.  There is no guarantee as to how things will unfold, but there is hope, and I have a choice as to how to use my influence to support the creation of a sustainable, inclusive, and just society.  Knowing that millions of others are also making such choices, I can see my actions as part of a dynamic transformation that is happening all over the planet.

A Deeper Approach to Fear

While holding all that I have said above in mind, I also have been more deeply exploring the nature of fear itself – and of its close relation, anxiety.  While not suppressing or denying my feelings, can I move toward letting go of fear and anxiety as typical responses to the state of the planet?  Chronic anxiety and fear can diminish physical and mental health and can reduce my general resilience.  Can I move toward courage, compassion, and internal peace as my more typical inner state, no matter what the external circumstances?

To address these questions, I have turned to various spiritual and wisdom traditions that offer helpful perspectives and practices.  Engaging in practices such as focusing my consciousness in the present, not being bound to my thoughts, and cultivating compassion for myself and others supports a shift to a more healthy inner state.

I don’t want to give the impression that I live in this healthy inner state all, or even most, of the time.  For me, the development of a more courageous and grounded self has been – and continues to be – a lifelong and nonlinear process.  I am entirely capable of being fearful, cranky, and even snarky.  Watching politics on television, for example, does not always bring out my best.  But, over time, I see desirable changes in my way of being and an increased capacity to respond with calm and clarity.  This better enables me to respond compassionately and effectively to the emotional experiences of others.

We are most likely in for a prolonged period of turbulence as we move through historic change. Sustainability is a multi-faceted endeavor, and the challenges facing the planet have amplified for us all the opportunity for personal development.  As sustainability educators and practitioners, we need to be intentional about the development our own emotional resilience – and to support one another in the process – so we may ably support our students and others as together we face the fears and engage the hopes and possibilities of our time.

by Jessica Skinner

Did you know that the number of registered farmer’s markets in the US has grown 128% since 2002 to over 7125 markets?  And that Farm to School programs are active in all 50 states?

There is a strong push to bring more local products onto our plates and into our schools, and to keep those products in communities where they are produced.  So why the push for local food?

Simply put, local food is more sustainable for our community in the long run.  A more localized food system embraces the main tenants of creating a more sustainable food system, taking into consideration the Three E’s: environment, economy, and social equity.

By investing more time, energy and money into our local community through the food system, we support much more than just the farmers and the preservation of our food.  From sustainable agriculture to sustainable land use planning to sustaining ourselves as human beings, the principles of sustainability are the guidelines by which the local food movement is rooted.

Reconnecting with our food and the system that it embodies is more of a (re)localization of our food system, keeping our dollars close to home by purchasing food within a 150 to 200 mile radius of one’s home. I say (re)localization because local and sustainable food systems are not a new concept, we’ve just grown away from them since the onset of the industrial revolution and our ability to grow, move and dispose of things far away and quickly without much thought as to what happens next.

I’m also referring to the increase in the number of home and community gardens springing up across the nation as a way to decrease food miles, our food’s overall carbon footprint, and the larger cost of food.

When national campaigns such as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, reconnect consumers to the origin of what they eat, it is evident there is a paradigm shift about how we interact with our food and the system that creates it.

So what is a food system through the lens of sustainability? Virginia Nickerson lays out the basic elements in this diagram from her report “Understanding Vermont’s Local Food System:”

From food production to distribution, waste and nutrient management to consumption, there is a common link that connects each one of them – the change agents that shape and mould this system. There are varying degrees to which each sector of the system plays a role. As in any ecosystem, no one element of the food system can function properly without the other.  When the change agents (that’s you, me, our policy makers, educators and researchers, and others) make socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound decisions regarding how our food is grown, how it is processed, and how it makes its way to our mouths, we are voting for a food system that will support us in the future, that will provide livable wages, and will help us to circulate money and other vital nutrients within our own communities.

Across the nation, educational leaders, farmers and parents are creating ways to reconnect people of all ages to various aspects of this system.  The Farm to School Network, whose goal is to “establish relationships between local foods and school children”, and projects such as Vermont Feed strive to get students involved and invested in their food system and their future.

If a child grows a carrot, or visits a farm where they harvest greens for their salad bar, or takes a trip to a landfill where they can see some of the effects of wasting resources, they will be much more inclined to make decisions that are more sustainable for themselves as well as their surrounding environment, including their schools, their families and their neighbors.  The Three C’s, Cafeteria, Classroom, and Community, guide the Vermont FEED network and are the core of many school based food education programs.  By teaching students how to make healthy food choices and by having them interact with their food system, they will become better decision makers in the future.

(Re)localizing and making our food system more sustainable is happening in big ways, from the growth in programs such as Farm to School and Farm to Institution, but also in the development of larger scale food waste composting programs, networks of small food processors and distributors, and educational materials, webinars, videos and workshops about how to sustain our food system so that it can sustain us.  This movement is grassroots AND being shaped by federal, state and local policy.  People are tuning into ways to change their eating and buying habits to keep our money and our resources local, as evidenced by the number of farmers markets, farm stands, gardens, energy reduction programs, buy local campaigns and more.

How can you connect the Three E’s with the Three C’s in your local food system?  

Eat More Kale photo:  Courtesy of Seacoast Eat Local

Diagram from “Understanding Vermont’s Local Food System” by Virginia Nickerson, Prepared for The Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Council, 2008

by Paul Bocko

Consider the following: Children at play are building a foundation for systems thinking.  I have been pondering this notion recently while collaborating with two of my students conducting action research.  One is studying the impact of play in two ecosystems in New York City’s Central Park.  The other is investigating how play informs the design of play areas – especially his own school’s playground in St. Louis.

Photo by Rosen Georgiev

So what?  (You may ask.)  I believe that when children engage in un-orchestrated play, they are forced to navigate complexity – the intricate “landscape” of parts, people, and relationships in their immediate environment.  Who has my back on this?  Richard Louv for one.  He believes nature play develops skills in problem-solving and critical thinking.  Louv’s “nature deficit disorder” is a compliment to Diane Levin’s “problem solving deficit disorder” – the condition in which children are no longer active agents of their involvement with the world.  One review of David Sobel’s book, Childhood and Nature, notes that experiences in nature “are more important than learning facts about nature and are actually prerequisites for environmental concern”.   I have found more recent posts that directly link play and systems thinking.  Check out this interview with a professor who is conducting a MacArthur Foundation funded study on the development of systems thinking for middle school students.  Some of this work flies in the face of Louv’s work as it involves students using “new media” to create systems.  Adults too are using play to learn – I found a proposal for an upcoming software development conference workshop entitled Systems Thinking Through Play.  I am confident this only scratches the surface of the resources that explore the linkages between play and systems thinking.

Bottom line: Systems thinking is inherent in the 3E’s – environment, economy, and equity.  How can it not be when you consider the intricacies embedded in each area?  In order to solve pressing problems, children and adults need to develop and maintain problem-solving skills, use all available tools, and mix in just the right amount of play to find the best solutions.  Just maybe we can experience a bit of joy in the process.

Here’s to play at any age!  AND here’s to my students for taking a risk and digging in deep on this topic – I expect to be sharing hyperlinks to their conclusions very soon.

by Rachel Brett

What does Harry Potter have to do with EFS? A lot, especially if you’re trying to teach kids about sustainability. As any Harry Potter fan knows, one of the most important lessons that Harry learns during his quest to fight evil is that he can’t do it alone. Although Harry may be the star of the books, he needs the help of his two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, to ultimately triumph. Focusing only on Harry means that you’re looking at just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

So what lessons can we take from Harry Potter? Well, when many people hear the word “sustainability,” their mind goes immediately to the environment. For many, sustainability means being “eco-friendly.”  The environment may well be the Harry Potter of sustainability, but it’s not enough. Instead, EFS must integrate the 3 E’s into how we define and understand sustainability. The 3 E’s are environment, economy and equity, and all three are essential and interconnected elements of EFS. J.K. Rowling builds this theme of interconnectedness into her books both explicitly and implicitly and makes it clear how vital it is for the heroes’ success. For example, Dumbledore repeatedly emphasizes to Harry and others how interdependent life is: what seems inconsequential or unrelated often has vast implications when the big picture is revealed. This concept is woven into the very fabric of the novels, as well. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that each small and seemingly insignificant action and event has consequences and reverberations on a much grander scale.

When we teach about sustainability, we need to teach people to look at it from multiple perspectives. Environmental health, social justice, and economic stability shouldn’t be at odds with one another—they are all critical components of the big picture of sustainability. If the problems we face are interdependent, then the solutions must also be integrated. As environmental justice advocates like Van Jones and Majora Carter emphasize, even the greenest idea in the world won’t solve our problems if it’s so expensive only the wealthy can access it. After all, it was the boy from under the stairwell, a muggle-born girl, and the son of a mid-level bureaucrat who together brought peace and justice to the wizarding world, not the elite, affluent Malfoy family. In addition, by embracing a vision that was diverse yet cohesive—not fragmented or divisive—Harry found unexpected allies in house elves and Centaurs. Adopting a similar scope through the 3 E’s, then, will not just ensure that our solutions are more holistic—it will also help unite people in constructing a society that is sustainable and equitable for all.

The students I work with understand this. I’ve heard fifth graders wax poetic about how a new technology isn’t sustainable unless it’s fair to all; how our ability to make change often depends on money but our ability to make money depends on the resources in our earth; how each of these concepts are just individual—but interlinking—pieces of that big puzzle. I’ve heard the same students discuss their favorite Harry Potter characters, and although some revere Harry while others may have “I love Ron Weasley” t-shirts in their closets, they all recognize that each character is only one part of the story. There is a lot more to Harry Potter that creates a complete, complex world encompassing the struggles of ordinary people trying to get by in an unfair world. Only by looking at the bigger picture can we understand that world; only by bringing together all the pieces can Harry and his friends save that world. These lessons apply to us as well: only by integrating the 3 E’s and the many pieces of our own big picture will we ultimately achieve our purpose of creating a more sustainable society ourselves.

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